Stay With Me

Chapter 16

Chapter 16


It's almost noon and Peeta hasn't so much as stirred yet. He was pretty wasted last night. So drunk in fact that he didn't even realize he'd crawled into bed with me in his underwear. I'm annoyingly curious about how his night played out given his state. But I get how hypocritical that is after spending New Year's Eve with Gale.

Things with Gale went better than expected, though my expectations were pretty low to begin with, so it's all relative. We got off to a rough start. Conversation was stilted since he was clearly still pissed at me, but after a while he lightened up a bit and it felt a little more like old times.

It wasn't long, though, before he noticed my ring. Then I was faced with the horrible dilemma of deciding whether to tell him the truth or make sure he believed the lie. I had to settle for a little bit of both.

I told him Peeta and I had gotten a lot closer in the last little while, that the relationship had taken us both by surprise and that I hadn't told him about it sooner because I didn't know what to make of it myself.

"And so you're what, you're engaged now?" He asked, not bothering to hide his distaste for the idea.

"We've decided we're all in, yeah, and we'll figure out what that means as we go," I answered, hoping he didn't push for too much more detail.

"Katniss, I just don't get it. This isn't you. You never would've gone near that kid back home. And I never would've thought of you as the kind of girl to lose her head and run off and marry the first guy to come along."

At this I took a deep, slow breath. Every part of me wanted to tear Gale a new one, but I was also trying to make things right, not worse, so I continued on as calmly as I could. "It is me, it's who I am now, Gale, and I hope that you can still be friends with this me because I couldn't stand it if you weren't. It can't be like it was when we were kids forever, we're growing up."

"I guess I just thought, I mean, I always figured it'd be you and me, you know? That when you decided you were ready for the whole relationship thing, it'd be us. Not you and that spoiled baker's kid."

"But you never said anything! You never tried-"

"Yeah, and now I guess I'm too late."

We sat in silence for a while after that, each of us stuck in our own heads. Then he turned to look at me and leaned in for an entirely unexpected kiss.

What's so crazy is that a month ago I hadn't kissed anyone at all and then yesterday I experienced a first kiss with a whole other person! It was surreal, both because it was Gale and because kissing is still such a new phenomenon for me.

There was nothing wrong with it, the kiss I mean. It was as fiery and passionate as Gale can be. For a moment while it was happening I could almost see this whole other timeline play out in my mind. It was me and Gale carving out a life for ourselves surrounded by family with lots of time in the woods around Oak Hill.

But then almost as quickly as those images came they were replaced with ones of me and Peeta. His sweet, steadfast loyalty. The way he challenges me, steadies me, opens my eyes to things I've only ever seen in the one way.

And that's when I pulled back from Gale, pushing him away gently with a hand on his chest. He smiled sadly and said, "I had to try. Just the once."

I gave a small smile back, but didn't speak, so Gale went on.

"I guess the thing is, Catnip, I was waiting for you to give me a sign that that's what you wanted. You never did, not in all these years, I get that now. Some part of me always kinda knew that meant something, something I didn't really want to know."

"You should get to know him, Gale, he's a good guy."

"Must be."

We were able to relax after that. We settled in with snacks and made fun of the slew of ridiculous celebrities counting down in Times Square, as we normally would. At midnight we hugged and the loaded feeling that had been there between us was gone. By the time I left I wasn't really sure when we'd hang out again, but I felt good about where we were at.

When I got home everything made sense. I breathed in as much of Peeta's scent as I could when I walked through the door, then spent some time looking at his art and checking out his beautiful kitchen tool collection. I felt like I was home amongst his things. It was obvious something was missing without him though and I found myself wishing he'd walk through the door and complete the feeling.

Even as drunk as he was, it was still a pretty nice end to the year. While most of me finds sharing my bed with a man foreign and bizarre, I can't deny it's fast becoming one of my favourite things with Peeta. Knowing he's there, hearing his breathing, being wrapped up in his strong arms – I've never felt so safe. It was a good, good night.

Today would be a whole other kind of nightmare though. Peeta thinks we should go to some opening ceremony reception thing here in the building and I can't think of anything I'd rather do less.

I hate meeting new people in forced social situations. It's the worst. I'm terrible at small talk, and I have no idea how to be charming or convincingly friendly. Thank god I'll be with Peeta, he actually likes people.

At 12:30 I can finally hear Peeta starting to come back to life. I get some more coffee going since he may need some help joining the land of the living again.

"Hey Sunshine," I say with a chuckle when he emerges from the bedroom, his blond hair sticking out in all directions.

"Hey," he manages to get out, heading straight towards the coffee pot.

"So, you had a big night last night then," I say with a smirk.

"I'm not really sure how it happened, but yeah, I guess I did," he says. "Thanks, for uh, for making sure I got to sleep okay."

"Well, you didn't leave me much of a choice..."

He blushes a bit at the reminder and continues to silently sip his coffee.

"So, we really doing this in an hour and a half?"

"Shit, what time is it? I was going to bake something for it," he says and I can't help but smile hearing him curse. I point to the clock and he sighs. "Yeah, Haymitch said we should and I think it's a good idea, you know, to keep up appearances."

I'd forgotten about the interaction Peeta's been having with Haymitch without me. The 'Boys' Club' feeling of it pisses me off and sours what was a pretty good mood.

"Well, if you two think it's a good idea then I guess that's what we're doing. I'm going to take a shower," I say with unmistakeable attitude and then stalk off towards the bathroom, leaving Peeta in the kitchen to try and figure out what the hell just happened.

There are already a dozen or so people at the reception when we arrive. Quite a few of them are milling around the table containing some kind of punch and several different kinds of snacks.

Haymitch spots us and saunters over, pulling a small flask out of an inside jacket pocket as he reaches us. He casually pours some of the clear liquid into his punch like he would cream into coffee. Peeta recoils at the smell and I roll my eyes at the both of them.

"I didn't know you would be here," I say to Haymitch.

"Well, Happy New Year to you too, sweetheart. Wouldn't want to miss your big debut," he says, taking a sizable swig of his drink. "You two should circulate, make some friends." The last part he says with a sarcastic tone, like the idea of us making friends is a ridiculous notion. It annoys me because he's probably right.

I look at Peeta apprehensively and he smiles back, taking my hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze. He walks us confidently towards the nearest group of people and strikes up a casual conversation with ease. I try my best to smile and add to the small talk whenever possible, but mostly I just let Peeta do his thing.

After a while I need a break from the crowd so I wander back over towards the punch to refill our cups. I realize too late that there's a couple fighting just behind the table, so I'm awkwardly privy to their argument while pouring our drinks.

"You do this to me every single time. It's like you're trying to embarrass me on purpose!"

"No, Cato, that's not true, I didn't mean to-"

"You never mean to, do you? You're always so innocent with your bullshit crying, cozying up to other guys telling me you're just being friendly."

I decide I've heard enough, but before I turn to leave I take a good look at the guy berating his partner. He's a big, imposing man and the look in his eyes is hard and threatening. It's upsetting to see a person looking at someone with such a cold expression. It sends an awful chill down my spine.

When I get back to Peeta I smile at the couple he's talking to, then politely excuse us and pull him off to the side.

"Don't look really obvious about it, but have you ever met that guy over by the punch? He's there with a girl."

"No, not yet. Why, what's his deal?"

"No reason, never mind, he just seems like a dick."

Haymitch rejoins us then and the three of us get into a lively debate about the value of a college degree, the people who are rich enough to basically buy one and what that means for the rest of us. Peeta is of course trying to add balanced comments that take both sides into account. I'm arguing fervently that arrogant bastards who have too much money to truly value anything are ruining our country and Haymitch is mostly just drinking, amused by our conversation.

I'm just wrapping up a particularly passionate point about the kind of egocentric asshole that becomes an academic and just how many of them I've had to suffer through during my time at UWV when Haymitch clears his throat especially loudly.

"Good afternoon, President Snow. There's a fine turnout here today," Haymitch says, extending his hand to the white-haired man behind me.

I'm afraid to turn to face him, but know I have to. When I do, he's already looking at me, probably trying to memorize the face of the girl who just insulted his school, profession and faculty.

"And you are?" He's smiling, but it's a practiced smile barely hiding his contempt.

"Katniss Everdeen," I reply, avoiding his eyes as I shake his hand.

He holds it in his firm grip a moment more than necessary and I wonder if he's going to say something else, but then Peeta breaks in with a, "And I'm Peeta Mellark, sir, Katniss' fiance," and offers him his hand to let me off the hook.

"I trust you'll both enjoy, and appreciate," he says pointedly, looking straight at me, "living here."

"Of course, sir, thank you for the opportunity," Peeta answers while I stay silent. Despite it having been Peeta who spoke, President Snow continues to train his eyes on me for a beat longer before making his way towards the podium set up on the other side of the room.

"Well done, darlin'," Haymitch says acerbically while clapping, "Way to stay under the radar and make a good first impression with the one man who could blow this all to shit for you. For you both." He shakes his head and mutters, "You're always worth the price of admission, sweetheart," before making his way to the front for the speech.

As the crowd fills in to hear President Snow's official opening, Peeta and I slink back towards the far end of the room. He turns to me and says, "We could just leave. There are a lot of people one would notice."

"Really? Because I would love to get the hell out of here."

"Yeah, come on, let's get you home. And get some kind of disgustingly fattening baked good into you," he adds and smiles.

"The perks of living with you are really stacking up, Mellark," I answer with a big grin, leaning into his chest playfully.

"I aim to please," he says, taking my hand and leading me out towards home.

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